Hanoi was a different experience to Ho Chi Minh City. Whether I liked it more or not- I couldn’t quite tell, nor put my finger on exactly how the two differed so much.
I think because we were staying in the very centre of town in Hanoi the people were just so condensed into such a small space.
I enjoyed that experience to a degree- witnessing the busy hectic lifestyle, the street markets where people are literally sitting on the sidewalk chopping fish and meat. It was fascinating and I enjoy learning about and seeing such different cultures and lifestyles.
The people are such hard workers. It’s hard not to notice that they work all day from the early hours of the morning right up until 11 pm at night.
The many food vendors made a good advantage of the tourists a lot more than in HCMC. There was always someone trying to sell to you and being rather pushy- especially the fried doughnut sellers. I even had a lady randomly place her wooden carry pole (which was painfully heavy- wow they are strong!) on my shoulder and placed her cone hat on my head for a photo for money (of which we politely refused).
Another observation was that the locals literally throw all of their rubbish onto the ground and sweep it into the gutter. A bin truck does come around to collect it in the evenings, but that still didn’t really get rid of it all, or the smell.
The large amount of traffic in the small streets mean that scooters ride on the footpaths and also park there- often blocking the whole sidewalk so you have to share the road with the rest of the zooming vehicles. Crossing the road and trying not to get run over was a bit of a nightmare at times. I did witness a van munch a scooter with a person still on it- and that didn’t help my nerves!
All of the exhaust from the scooters as well meant that there was quite a bit of air pollution and after walking around for the day you just felt very dirty and grimy. It’s no wonder the majority of locals wear masks over their mouths. (This is quite like Bangkok, although you can still see the sky in Hanoi!).
I suppose Hanoi was more ‘in my face’ because of that, with the traffic, the pushy people and it was a tad more touristy.
It was still a wonderful city and I enjoyed it very much, especially the history of it. I really admired the centuries-old architecture of the historic Old Quarter and the French colonial influence which was also evident in the beautiful buildings, the French bakeries and language. We found the majority of locals to be very friendly, the street food was abundant and delicious, egg coffee was everywhere (my fave!) and the mirror-like green Koan Kiem Lake with the ancient Ngoc Son Temple in central Hanoi was a tranquil place in the middle of its chaotic surroundings.
Overall it was very much a typical bustling South-East Asian city, and the energy at night especially was enigmatic.
This is the second part of three in my Vietnam Travel Diary series. Here is the first one from Ho Chi Minh City if you missed it.
I spent four nights in Hanoi, with two nights in between in Halong Bay- which is why there is a gap between days in the middle.
Here is what I got up to in the capital city of Vietnam:
After a two hour flight with Jetstar from HCMC to Hanoi, we got a shuttle van from the airport to our hotel. It cost 200k VND for both of us ($12 AUD) and it took about 40 minutes.
One thing I noticed on the drive there looking out of the window was the dramatic change in clothing- it was Winter up here! It was still around 24 degrees though- so I certainly still found it warm enough to wear shorts or a dress. The locals on scooters however were bundled up in jackets and thick coats!
We stayed at a small hotel called Lele and Frog for the first two nights and it was a very basic and cheap hotel with everything we needed. It cost about $50 AUD a night and included breakfast and wifi.
The room was well made up and clean and my favourite part was the balcony overlooking the street below (of which we immediately purchased a beer to enjoy it with).
The bathroom was rather tiny and as we found out later the street noise at night was horrendous, but it was in a really good location- so you win some, you lose some.
After our 3 pm beers we ventured out to explore Hanoi and planned to stay out until our booked Walking Food Tour which was at 7:30 pm.
Our first stop was a delicious French bakery right around the corner from our hotel. We had a fresh croissant pick-me-up each (just as good as Paris) and browsed through many shops on the way towards the lake.
|We became short-term regulars at the bakery|
|We passed St Joseph’s Cathedral which was very magnificent|
We walked around the tranquil lake and came to the centre square of the Old Quarter. The roads around as we found out are blocked off on the weekends (brilliant idea) so that people can walk freely and peacefully around the lake.
We had a beer-stop rest at an upstairs bar overlooking the busy streets below which was very fascinating. Afterwards, we ventured through the bustling market streets, just browsing and people-watching really.
|Typical whole family on a scooter|
After a big walk at about 6 pm we came across a busy corner which we later found out was called ‘beer corner,’ which had locals eating and drinking beer outside on tiny tables and chairs.
We found a more quiet spot and joined them. The old lady that served us didn’t speak English but she was very friendly and even kept telling pushy sellers to shoo away from us!
|The delicious pancakes|
Okay, my actual favourite was the dessert- which was Vietnamese ice cream and coconut rice pudding, with coconut shavings on top. It was heavenly! It was almost as good as my ultimate favourite- the Thai mango sticky rice.
After a rather noisy sleep and a delightful pho for breakfast, we went out for another big exploration. We saw the temple in the middle of the lake and found a beautiful big park with heaps of parents and their children playing as it was a Sunday.
|Morning fruit vendors|
|Gorgeous colonial French architecture|
|The park with many big displays and locals enjoying the weekend|
|Gareth with the temple in the middle of the lake behind him|
|The surrounding streets blocked off was so nice!|
We had an iced coffee break at Highlands and browsed through many shops. At about 2 pm we sought out Bahn Mi 25 for lunch which was recommended to us as an excellent place for the traditional Vietnamese baguettes.
There was a bit of a wait as it was a very popular place, but it was nice to sit down and we enjoyed a cold beer while we waited.
We got one each with everything on it- sausage, pate and veg and it was really delicious and the bread was crunchy. Still not as good as the one I had in HCMC- but probably second.
After our late lunch we went back to our hotel for a bit of a rest for an hour or two. Then Gareth was on a mission to get business pants and shirts tailored for him. The second shop we tried was the one and he was measured up and we chose the materials.
Across the road was a Chinese dumpling restaurant so we went there for dinner and got a set menu to share which was pretty good and again so much food, we couldn’t eat it all!
The night markets were only on in the weekends so we wanted to check them out. It was very very crowded and huge- we walked through miles and miles of stalls. They had some okay stuff, but I wasn’t really interested in anything. I’m sort of over buying useless things I don’t need. I did, however want one souvenir from Hanoi so I decided to buy a black Vietnam T-shirt which only cost $3 AUD.
It was another day full of walking (23k steps according to my Fitbit!) so we were again rather exhausted and went back to the hotel to pack our suitcases for an early start tomorrow.
|Busy weekend market|
Days Eight and Nine – 12-13 December
We arrived from Halong Bay to our next Hanoi accommodation in the afternoon. We were staying at Golden Sun Suites Hotel and because it was our final two nights in Vietnam, we decided to splash out a bit more than our previous Hanoi hotel (it was still only $95 AUD a night for their best room).
After welcome drinks and fruit we were taken to the ‘Honeymoon Suite’ and it was made up spectacularly! The biggest surprise was the complimentary bottle of wine and freshly baked cake waiting for us in our room! (Hotel review on the blog coming soon).
|A very nice surprise!|
|The view from our window|
One thing that really surprised me was how dramatically the weather had changed after just two days away- Winter had come! I finally had to wear pants and a sweatshirt that had been hiding at the bottom of my suitcase.
We went out for a late afternoon exploration and ended up coming across and visiting the Hoa Lo Prison. It was first used by the French colonialists for political prisoners and then later by North Vietnam for the U.S Prisoners of War. It was very interesting indeed and we spent a good hour in there going through the old rooms and cells and learning its history.
We sat outside a nice little cafe near St Joseph’s cathedral and had a delicious egg coffee (great pick-me-up!) and enjoyed a beer before heading to the tailors to pick up Gareth’s two shirts and trousers.
All were very well made and for a very good price. They were called Bambou Silk if you’re interested in getting a suit, clothes or dress made.
It was our final day in Hanoi and sadly it was raining. We took a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where his embalmed body is preserved in a glass sarcophagus protected by his military honour guard.
We certainly weren’t allowed to take photos (we’d probably be hanged!) or even have our hands in our pockets. It was weird seeing his dead body… but it was something Gareth wanted to see. Apparently we have to go see Lenin in Moscow next (if I get to go to Russia then sure!).
We walked through the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace Historical Site where he used to live. The palace and grounds were grand and we got to see his old cars and into some preserved rooms he used. There were many Vietnamese taking selfies with everything.
It shut for the lunch hour at 12 pm so we had a pho and coffee nearby before walking to the Military History Museum which opened at 1 pm. Thankfully the rain had stopped by then.
|The palace which was roped off to visitors|
The museum was again more Gareth’s thing but it was interesting enough. There was an ancient flag tower, destroyed enemy bombers and plenty of aircraft and tanks to view.
We walked the couple of kilometres back towards our hotel and stopped late afternoon for a bit of a random feast. ‘Bun cha’ restaurants are very common which have set menus. They usually consist of a grilled pork plate, deep fried spring rolls and noodle soup but we asked to just have a plate of spring rolls as more of a snack. They didn’t really speak English so we got two of the three and one each!
So we just had to sit there and try and eat as much as we could. It was a little annoying but we got over it quickly as it tasted too good to really care! We ate less than half of it but it only cost $3.50 AUD each… so who’s to complain about that?
We had a bit of a rest back in our room and then bundled up to head out again as it was getting quite cold. We were planning on just having a few bevvys in the beer corner as we were still very full, but on the way we spotted a bar called Obama’s Restaurant which even had a photo of him with a beer! I found this extremely hilarious and such a winning name that we stopped for a couple of Tigers there first.
Next we walked only about 20 metres and came across some people standing outside an old temple trying to sell last minute tickets to a show.
It was for traditional music and we looked at each other and spontaneously said yes.
It was a very unique but blissful hour of a beautiful blend of female vocals and traditional instruments. It was very captivating and I’m glad we went because I just love different cultural experiences.
The government and the group of artists are trying to revive the art of ‘Ca Tru’ which is the ancient genre of chamber music. We weren’t allowed to take photos during the performance but afterwards we were invited to take pictures with the performers so of course I hopped up!
It was about 8:30 pm by then so we decided it was time for dinner. We found the beer corner and chose a place called ‘Little Hanoi’ and ordered a big mixed hotpot which came with three plates to put in the broth. One with the meat, one with noodles and one with a heap of herbs and vegetables. It was a-maz-ing and a brilliant way to end our time in Vietnam. The huge dinner plus at least four beers only totalled 200k VND ($12 AUD). We ate, we drank, we were merry.
After a final pho for breakfast (sniff) we checked out and headed to the airport.
Upon leaving, the staff- who were always amazingly friendly and brilliant, asked us to fill out a review card for our stay. I filled it out giving them all the best marks and added in the comment section that I’ll be mentioning them on my travel blog. I handed it back to them and was almost to the taxi when they rushed out and exclaimed “Are you a travel blogger?” I said yes and I think four members of staff lined up saying “Thank you, thank you” and to wave us off.
I have never before told anyone I was a travel blogger (because I’m still pretty new) but that reaction was unexpected! I think every little bit of help they can get means a lot to them, so I am more than happy to write about them.
From Hanoi we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, then to Singapore, on to Brisbane, then the Gold Coast.
It was an amazing trip. Very exhausting, but amazing. It was good to have walked so much to counter all of the eating (and beer drinking). We saw a lot, we learnt a lot. We both left wishing we didn’t have to, and that next time we should spend at least six months here travelling the whole country.
The impact coming home was more than I’ve felt ever before. It just got me thinking a lot.
Being able to drink fresh water from the taps, having a nice hot shower at home, sleeping in my comfy bed in my big house where I have so many things. I looked around at all of my products, makeup, so many clothes and shoes I have to continually give them away.
I picture the people on the streets, working so hard just so their families can eat. They have nothing in comparison. Sitting on the dirty hard ground or carrying heavy loads or serving ‘rich’ tourists like us. What do they think of us? Do they envy or despise us? Are they happy? What do they think when they are scrubbing our feet and giving us pedicures? What do they go home to? All of these questions came in a wave as I arrived in my house.
I’ve been to Indonesia and Thailand before and of course they are also poor countries and we are rich to them, but I came away with the feeling that they are actually genuinely happy. I didn’t feel that with the Vietnamese. I know the war is still very fresh and the effects of it are obvious still today.
I have the feeling I would feel the same way if I went to places in Africa or India for example.
I guess I just really felt the unfairness of it all. I heard a lot of the people’s stories from their own mouths and their own hardships, as well as seeing it blatantly with my own eyes.
That is just a small reflection. In truth, I can’t wait to go back. I would love to visit Hoi An, the mountains in the very North, the Mekong Delta in the South.
But I would really love to visit Thailand again more. It’s been five years since I went there- and that was my first real big eye-opening trip and introduction to foreign travel. I loved that trip so so much and I really wish to go back to see if my mindset of the country has changed at all, and maybe to just see it again and reflect on how much I have grown as a person since then. Definite goals for sure.
I have rambled quite enough for one blog post! I promise to make my third one about Halong Bay- a lot shorter!
Thank you so much if you have gotten this far and are still reading- kudos to you!
Hope to see you in my next post,
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